The dynamic duo from Critter Fixers: Country Vets is here to help you identify cat separation anxiety and soothe your stressed feline
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critter fixers
Credit: National Geographic

Dr. Vernard Hodges and Dr. Terrence Ferguson of Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital and the Nat Geo WILD's Critter Fixers: Country Vets know that your cat, or any other pet, is part of the family.

The dynamic duo started their veterinary clinic — currently located in the rural Georgia city of Bonaire, which is about 100 miles south of Atlanta — 21 years ago. They have grown their practice from two men with a dream into a beloved, successful business that has dozens of employees and takes care of local pets throughout their lives.

"That's who we are. We are two loving guys and we don't hide it, because we're members of the family. We've been open for 21 years, so we have 15-20-year relationships with our clients," Dr. Ferguson, 52, told PEOPLE. "We've seen the kids grow up. We've seen the kids go to college. We've seen the older kids now have families with pets. We're embedded in this community."

In fact, the veterinarians' closeness with their clients has posed some problems during the coronavirus pandemic, especially in regards to their "world-famous hugs."

"That's the hardest part of COVID. We have signs up. Our receptionist and office manager put them up in the clinic saying, 'Because of COVID-19 our doctors are not allowed to hug you.'  Literally, these signs are in every room." Dr. Hodges, 50, said.

Of course, the Critter Fixers haven't let the pandemic get in the way of them providing their community with the care it needs to keep its animals healthy and happy. Often times those animals aren't your basic cat and dog pets. Since Bonaire is more rural, animal specialists are often a two-hour drive away or more. In a critical situation, when an animal doesn't have time to lose, Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Hodges work together to provide the best treatment possible. This means the vets have treated camels, raccoons, alligators, snakes, and all sorts of other animals you might not expect to see at a veterinary hospital.

"We're in rural Georgia. If it comes through the door, we have to fix it," Dr. Hodges summarized.

The zoo of animals that tramp through Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital makes for great television. Critter Fixers: Country Vets, the show about Dr. Hodges and Dr. Ferguson's cuddly caseload, is now preparing for its second season which will air in Spring 2021 on Nat Geo WILD. Animal lovers looking to watch the first season can find it streaming on Nat Geo WILD and Disney +.

critter fixers
Credit: National Geographic

And while the veterinarians deal with their fair share of wilder animals, as Critter Fixers shows, they also take care of plenty of cats and dogs. They know the pandemic has been an interesting time for pets, especially cats, who, believe it or not, care that their owners are home more now.

"There is no doubt in my mind that these cats care. They want your love on their own terms like a 15-year-old kid. A 15-year-old might want to play video games and goof off, but at the end of the day they want to know their parents love them," Dr. Hodges said. "They will give you love in spurts, but they are very loving and they want to know that you are there."

Now that cats are used to getting extra love because many owners working from home, Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Hodges are preparing for what could happen as owners start returning to work and school.

"The advantage of being home is that you get to spend more time with your pet. The disadvantage is at some point you have to go back to work and all the cats are now like, 'Where is everybody?' Dr. Ferguson explained. "Now, the cat can go through anxiety and different behaviors, because it was accustomed to someone being there all the time."

Some of the different behaviors that owners might see as they spend less time at home are increased destructive behavior, increased vocalizing, going to the bathroom outside the litter box, increased hiding, and excessive grooming. All of these are signs of separation anxiety, but each is a common symptom for other ailments. So, Dr. Ferguson advises that if you notice any of these sudden behavioral changes, you take your cat to the vet to get a full check-up.

critter fixers
Credit: National Geographic

"A lot of health issues mimic the symptoms of anxiety and turn out to be something else," he explained. "And then, there are other times we think cats are just getting older, and that is why they are hiding, and that’s why they are slowing down, but it turns out to be anxiety. It’s important to see the vet for a thorough examination and to be able to talk about the cat’s history."

If a vet confirms that your cat is experiencing separation anxiety, there are several things you can do. There is medication available to help treat anxiety in cats, but the Critter Fixer vets believe that you should seek out all non-medical resolutions first before putting your cat on medication. There are feline pheromones diffusers that you can purchase and plug into an outlet at home, which is a natural way to treat cat anxiety, but perhaps the most helpful way to calm your cat, according to the vet duo, is through behavior modification.

"Let's say we have separation anxiety, rather than leaving for a long period of time, leave for five minutes, and then come back. Let the cat be assured that it will be a short period, and then you can increase that time to try to lessen the amount of bad behavior," Dr. Ferguson offered as an example of behavior modification.

critter fixers
Credit: National Geographic

"Remember your pets pick up on cues. Let’s say you have a purse that you pick up every time you leave, they will watch for those cues. They see you pick up that bag or your keys, and they know you are about to leave," Dr. Hodges added.  "So, I tell people to grab their keys, jingle them, and then sit on the couch. When you do these cues and then don’t leave, cats can become less stressed by the cue."

To make this approach work it is important to change your own behavior in ways that comfort your cat without rewarding your feline's bad behavior. While it might be tempting to give your cat treats or cuddle them when they vocalize more, this will often only reinforce your cat's increased meowing.

Figuring out what is bothering a pet and helping them feel better is the joy of the job for Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Hodges.

"We get to treat the babies that are the patients and the owners as well. We have two happy faces going out the door as opposed to one," Dr. Ferguson said.

The veterinarians also hope their works inspire others to pursue the same career.

"There are only about 2% of vets that are African American in the whole profession. We are proud to say we have had over 50 veterinarians come through Critter Fixers and we have been able to help with that. We just want to show kids around the world that your dream is possible," Dr. Hodges added.

Dr. Ferguson even wrote a children's book C is for Critter Fixer as another way to encourage young kids to explore their love for animals and think about a career in veterinary medicine.

To learn even more about the Critter Fixer veterinarians, watch the first season of Critter Fixers: Country Vets on Nat Geo WILD or Disney+ and look out for the second season arriving on Nat Geo WILD in Spring 2021.